The goals of the environmental justice movement include both protecting poor neighborhoods from environmental hazards and fostering community development. Success in environmental justice campaigns often comes to those who engage in collective efforts to solve a community's problems. This is the essence of the "empowerment" philosophy espoused by many environmental justice activists.
Like Little League and health clubs, concern for the environment has typically been a middle class pastime. Successful NIMBY ("Not In My Back Yard”) campaigns in middle-class neighborhoods prompted polluters to locate their businesses where opposition was weak and disorganized. As a result, a disproportionately large number of such facilities were placed in poor neighborhoods and in communities of color. Environmental injustice came to be seen as a byproduct of environmental regulation, occurring "not in spite of our systems of law, but because of our system of laws."1 Besides suffering the unwelcome attention of polluting industries, poor communities also have a hard time attracting desirable development. Some areas lack even basic amenities, such as paved roads, drinking water and wastewater treatment systems. There is often no legal remedy for these deficiencies. As with siting decisions for toxic waste dumps and the like, the failure to improve conditions in poor neighborhoods is a normal consequence of powerlessness.
What follows are two stories of successful environmental justice struggles along the Texas-Mexico border, in which the true heroes are the grassroots activists themselves.
For more than a century, a small group of Kickapoo Indians, members of an Algonquian tribe native to the Midwestern United States, have lived in the brush country straddling the border between the Mexican state of Coahuila and
The Kickapoo have a legacy as regional protectors. In the early 1800s the Spanish Crown encouraged them to settle in Spanish territory to strengthen defenses against Anglo-American encroachment.2 Mexican authorities continued this policy, welcoming the Kickapoo as defenders against raids from other Native American tribes.3
In 1991, the Traditional Council for the Texas Band of Kickapoo resolved to fight environmental degradation by passing a strong Tribal resolution opposing a radioactive waste dump near their land. Texcor Industries, Inc. proposed to build a waste disposal site for uranium mine tailings near
Represented by Alpha Hernandez and George Korbel of Texas Rural Legal Aid's
The Kickapoo also argued that the proposed location of the Texcor site violated their religious beliefs in contravention of the guarantees of the First Amendment and the Treaty of Fort Dearborn. The Fort Dearborn Treaty, executed September 28, 1832, reads:
This is to certify that the families of the Kickapoo Indians, thirty seven in number are to be protected by all persons from any injury whatever, as they are under the protection of the U.S. and any person so violating shall be punished accordingly.
Maj. Whittles, 2nd Reg. Inf. Company5
In testimony translated from Kickapoo to Spanish and then into English, Adolfo Anico, the Tribe's religious leader, told of Kickapoo beliefs regarding protection of the earth. "The air, the earth, the wind, the water and the sun are sacred elements of nature which correspond to the various aspects of the human form. The depositing of nuclear waste at a site other than that of its origin is a desecration of the earth and disturbs the balance of nature. This, then, affects the human. In the words of Chief Seattle 'we are a part of the earth and it is a part of us, for all things are connected.'"6
The proceedings, which lasted 65 days, became a tri-national undertaking with parties from the
La Union de las Colonias Olvidadas
The people living in the colonias along Highway 359 had good reason to feel forgotten. After years of pleading with elected officials, these colonias east of
Lack of money wasn't the problem. Literally millions of dollars of state and federal funds have been available for years. A 1990 GAO study showed that
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has included a $100 million Colonias Assistance Program initiative in its 1995 budget. This program would assist state and local efforts to address the severe housing and infrastructure needs of the colonias. The $100 million would be used to match funds provided by the states of
By July 1994, residents of the
True to its word, LUCO promptly organized a public protest. 100 families paraded down the streets of
County officials were quick to absolve themselves and pin the blame on others. Responding to criticism from colonia residents that she has done little to help them, County Commissioner Judith Gutierrez contended "the Union members are threatening to sue the wrong people. They should be suing the developers. We at the county feel a tremendous moral obligation to help them, but we have no legal obligation."
"The county is saying that they do not have a legal obligation, we are saying that they do," said Texas Rural Legal Aid attorney Israel Reyna. According to Reyna the county received a $52,000 grant for a county engineering plan three years ago but still hadn't completed it. The plan was to lay out how services could be delivered to the colonias. He argued that since the colonia residents were the intended beneficiaries of the grant, the county was under a legal obligation to follow through and complete the project. Reyna said, "it is not unreasonable to expect public officials or county officials who are using state funds earmarked for that purpose, to write down on a piece of paper when this project will be completed."
LUCO's demand for results bore fruit. By April 1995
The remedy for environmental injustice lies with the people most affected; Communities that once were invisible or forgotten can gain control over their destinies. But first they must overcome the root causes of their impoverishment. Chief among these is the lack of political clout endemic to poor communities. Only by organizing and coming together can communities realize their power.
1. Luke Cole, "Empowerment as the Key to Environmental Protection: The Need for Environmental Poverty Law," 19 Ecology L.Q. 619,667 (1992).
2. Callender, Charles, Pope, Richard K. and Susan, "Kickapoo," pp.656-667, in W. SMevant, ed. Northeast, vol. 15 Handbook of North American Indians. Smithsonian (1978).
3. See Latorre, Felipe A. and Dolores L., The Mexican Kickapoo Indians (1976).
4. Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of
5. Closing Brief on Behalf of the Kickapoo Tribe at 2, In the Consolidated Proceedings on the Application of Texcor Industries, Inc., (Texas Department of Health, Proposed Radioactive Materials License No. 4336 and Texas Water Commission, Proposed Discharge Permit No. 03328) (1992).
6. United States General Accounting Office, Report to the Chairman, Committee on Agriculture, House of Representatives: Rural Development- Problems and Progress of Colonia Subdivisions near